Where We Called Home: Life on Burnaby Island

By 
Victoria Schneider

In the distant horizon line, where the sky meets the sea, an undulating rhythm can just barely be detected among the sparkling waves. Tom has excellent sight and his distance vision surpasses most. “Yes,” he says, “Definitely kayakers, two most likely, are working their way into the bay.”  A bright easterly wind is blowing and it will take them an hour or more to work their way into the protected waters near our cabin.  We stop working and sit comfortably on a big log settled high on the beach, staring intently at the horizon line. The possibility of visitors is exciting, as it is May and we have seen only a few from the outside since fall.  Who could it be, especially coming from the South?  Our step quickens, finishing the work of stacking the wood, carrying fresh water up from the creek and tidying up our little cabin.  We are delighted and want to prepare to host new friends in our world.

The year is 1975 and we make our home on the protected southern edge of Burnaby Island, on the Queen Charlotte Islands, later re-named Haida Gwaii. These northern-most islands on the B.C. coast are called the ‘Canadian Galapagos’ for their tremendous biological diversity. An elder in Skidegate village said the traditional name for this bay is L’aanaa Daganag.a, but it’s known to the locals as Swan Bay.  Upon our arrival in 1973, the serene bay with natural barriers to the winter winds welcomed us, creating a first sighting that was epic!  A southeasterly wind had been slapping the bow of our freighter canoe, making headway slow until we came around the western point.  The calmer waters of the small bay glistened in the rising tide. The clouds parted and a shaft of light illuminated the emerald meadow, filling our spirits with hope.  We stopped paddling and let the momentum and tide carry the canoe through the giant kelp forest. We knew in the depths of our souls we would call this magical place home.  

We have now become three, having built our log cabin in time to birth our first child in the long days of the previous summer. Our first summer was spent searching for a home-site, two city kids longing for a natural life in the wilderness. We paddled down the west coast, high tide falling, to the old whaling station at Rose Harbor then up the forbidding west coast, low tide rising, where the powerful Pacific meets the continental shelf and the steep hillsides of San Cristoval Mountains of South Moresby. In the end, we made our way back to town late in the fall with dancing visions of L’aanaa Daganag.a and the simple life we dreamed of.

Our visitors finally arrive, along with their looks of amazement. We help them up the beach, securing their kayaks against the tide. We invite them in for tea and a warm place near the stove, which they gratefully accept. We soon discover that they are on the adventure of their lives, having dreamed of exploring the southern Charlottes for years. They flew from Seattle and hired a float plane to carry them from the airport in Sandspit to Rose Harbor, where they launched their inflatable kayaks. After a few days, the weather cleared for them to brave well-known rip tides on the southeast coast.  They share the tale of their adventure, inquiring about good fishing and camping sites, all the while drinking their hot tea with relish.

They tell us that the smoke from our wood stove greeted them far out in the inlet, and they wondered where it could be coming from. They couldn’t imagine anyone living so far into the wilderness and didn’t see our little cabin until they were almost upon us. We offer to dry their wet woolen clothes over the stove and soon the aroma fills our cabin, a familiar smell.  They gratefully accept when we offer them the tiny shelter and a warm meal. After a while Tom asks them if they would like to share in taking a deer with us and they answer that deer meat would be a delight to complement their dried rations.

Tom gets out the wooden cutting boards and begins sharpening our knives with confidence. Then he retrieves and loads his .22 rifle as our visitors watch with intense curiosity.  As the evening mist settles, four or five deer come out and begin to graze peacefully on the meadow outside the cabin. After they settle into nibbling the choice meadow grass, Tom opens the upper part of our Dutch door and carefully balances the rifle on the ledge. He silently says to the deer, “If one of you is willing to give your life so we can sustain ours, show us.”  One deer’s gaze rises and meets Tom’s eyes as the others slowly amble off. He takes careful aim and the sharp crack of the rifle reverberates through the ancient forest. It is a clean kill and the deer hits the soft meadow soundlessly. Calmly, Tom puts down the rifle and walks out to care for the animal that has graciously given its life.

Our new friends have just witnessed something that has become a normal part of our life. We hunt and gather daily, giving thanks for all that is, each season bringing its unique gifts. Salmon in the fall, herring and roe-on-kelp in the spring, seagull eggs through the early summer, and the daily gathering of miner’s lettuce, cleavers and sorrel among the ancient sphagnum moss meadow. We take only what we need and we waste nothing; everything serves a purpose. The rich seafood and deer meat gifted us with a healthy pregnancy, an easy birth, and a beautiful son, who was greeted into this life by only his father and me, gently guided by candlelight. 

The men walk out into the falling dusk to honor and clean the deer. The inedible organs are collected in a large wash tub and carried down to the low tide for the crabs to feast on. The liver, heart and kidneys are carefully washed and brought in to cook. I have our deep dish fry pan warmed on the small stove Tom made from a beach-combed barrel. We have wild greens from the meadow, brown rice and gently cooked heart and liver for dinner. They seem skeptical at first, but the meat is sweet and their appetite fresh and they gobble it up. We tell stories long into the night until we find our guests worn out from their adventure-filled day. They trundle off to sleep and prepare for another day of timeless adventures. The three of us climb the ladder into the loft to fall into a deep sleep that can only be known to those living within the natural cycles of the earth.

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One hundred kilometers off British Columbia's mainland coast, perched on the edge of Canada's Pacific continental shelf, lies the Queen Charlotte Islands. At their southern end is a naturalist's dream, an archipelago of 138 islands and 42 freshwater lakes known as South Moresby. It has 1,600 kilometers of coastal shoreline, bathed by the nutrient-rich waters of the north Pacific. That and its climate, tempered by warm offshore currents, make it one of the world's most amazing natural habitats. To biologists it is known as the Canadian Galapagos; the Haida Indians, for whom it is a traditional home, call it Gwaaia Haana, "Place of Wonder."                                        -Thom Henley

                                                                                                                                                       

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